Friday, September 21, 2007

Judge OKs Anti-Uniform Buttons

Associated Press, September 20 2007

Two Bayonne students can wear buttons featuring a picture of Hitler Youth to protest a school uniform policy, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

U.S. District Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. sided with the parents of the students, who had been threatened with suspension by the Bayonne school district last fall for wearing the buttons.

However, the judge added in his ruling that the boys will not be allowed to distribute the buttons at school.

"We're very pleased with the decision," said Laura DePinto, whose son wore the badge. "It's essentially confirming that students have the right to express their opinion and to peacefully protest."

Asked if her son would resume wearing the emblem, DePinto said that would be a matter for a "family discussion."

Citing a 1969 case in Iowa involving students who wore black arm bands to protest the Vietnam War, Greenaway wrote that "a student may not be punished for merely expressing views unless the school has reason to believe that the speech or expression will 'materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.'"

Greenaway's decision "follows the law as we saw it going in," said Karin R. White Morgen, an attorney representing both boys' families

The buttons bear the words "no school uniforms" with a slash through them superimposed on a photo of young boys wearing identical shirts and neckerchiefs. There are no swastikas visible on the buttons, but the parties agreed that they depict members of Hitler Youth.

Bayonne Superintendent of Schools Patricia L. McGeehan said the school district was disappointed in the decision and would review its legal options.

"We are very concerned with the precedent this may set, not only for Bayonne but for every public school district in New Jersey that tries to create and maintain a school environment conducive to learning and that is not offensive to students and staff," McGeehan said.

Earlier in the day, Board of Education attorney Kenneth Hampton said he doubted that the district would challenge the decision.

"It would not be worth the dollars to appeal this further," he said.

Bayonne instituted mandatory uniforms last September for grades K-8, and fifth-grader Michael DePinto wore the button several times before objections were raised in November, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.

In a letter dated Nov. 16, 2006, Janice Lo Re, principal of Public School 14, notified Laura DePinto that her son "will be subject to suspension" for wearing the button in school.

Parents of the other student, Anthony LaRocco, a seventh-grader at the Woodrow Wilson School, received a similar letter from principal Catherine Quinn.

Neither boy has worn the button since the lawsuit was filed, Morgen said.

An excellent ruling in support of civil liberties. The students were highly aware of the issues present in schools today and the issues surrounding school uniforms, and sought to protest in an effective but reasonable manner. The school of course overstepped their authority and suspended the students for their expression of their views.

The social and political issues represented here were important enough that the suggestion of offensiveness has no legal grounding--we have a right to freedom of speech, regardless of who is offended, because more often than not it is the very people we are offending who need most to hear the message. Furthermore, the buttons were condemning the Nazis and Fascism, not endorsing them. The school's position was not one of preventing hate groups, but of suppressing a highly unflattering comparison, one not entirely without merit.

If the school district is trying to "create and maintain a school environment conducive to learning" then they could start in their history classes, discussing the formation of the Hitler Youth, the Vietnam student protests, and the exercising of the First Amendment. If the want an environment "that is not offensive to students and staff" then perhaps they shouldn't introduce policies that invite such comparison.

If students exercising their civil liberties in a responsible and appropriate manner offends your sensibilities, and you take disciplinary and legal action to restrict their rights, then you are no better than the fascists they are comparing you to. The Bill of Rights was written to prevent the Tyrrany of the Majority, where one group tramples over the rights of the rest through force. The issue is more important than ever today, and thankfully the students, their parents, and Judge Greenaway is aware of this. I hope they continue to wear the buttons and find solidarity with their fellow students and their teachers.


Lkdepinto said...

Thanks for your kind words.

Our family believes this was "the good fight".

The outcome of this case help rejuvenate and reinforce the First Amendment rights we take for granted.

Thank you,
Laura DePinto

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